Wednesday, March 6, 2013
I've been a bit amazed of late to hear all the hoopla over Sam's Club deciding to leave Jackson for suburban pastures. I've even heard talk of people leading protests against it--as if that would mean squat up in Arkansas where Walmart Corporate makes its profitability decisions.
I've heard others say that the loss of Sam's Club must, must be the city's fault, presumably because we didn't offer the mega-company enough tax incentives or, perhaps, because every city official didn't drop down on his or her knees and beg them to stay.
All the enraged chatter reminded me of when the very odd mayor of Madison, Mary Hawkins-Butler, wanted people to march in protest because Starbucks was closing down.
Seriously, folks. I'd march for Cups or Koinonia, but Starbucks?
Is there really anyone reading this who thinks that the non-Mississippians who profit off these (inter)national businesses give two licks about the effect they have on communities? I remember two Starbucks outlets opening across the street from each other and near a local coffee shop in Manhattan. Of course, the local one closed and, later, both Starbucks shops followed.
The Walmart monster is not the only bad friend of communities, but it's among the worst. Just notice all the big-box shells it leaves behind in one part of town (on land where it displaced smaller businesses and trees to build in the first place) in order to move to another area and build an even bigger store to undercut the locals and hawk all those goods from China.
Yes, I get that you can save a little money on a case of toilet tissue and baby diapers in Sam's Club--but let's be honest. When's the last time you went there and only bought a case of diapers? These places make their billions by luring us in to "save" a little on necessities and then sell us a bigger barbecue grill or a case of vanilla candles we won't use in three years. Don't believe me? Do the homework. Research shows that people do not "save" much at big-box outlets; they end up spending more for more stuff.
And not all of that stuff is quality. I can't remember the last time I bought a key in a big, impersonal chain store that worked for any length of time. Meantime, I can pop around the corner and get Jason Meeks at SE Lock & Key to make me two high-quality keys covered with musical notes or martini glasses for about $5 as I did this week. And while I'm there, I can play with his Yoda bobblehead and find out the gossip about who's doing what around our neighborhood--from crime to new businesses.
In fact, that is the optimum word: neighborhood. You can't build a neighborhood around strip malls filled with big-box outlets and chains. They're built for traffic, not pedestrians. You're lucky you can find a sidewalk that'll get you out of one strip mall to the next one. And note how strips of big-box outlets become outdated in a few years, with places like Walmart and Sam's Club just following the developers farther out, leaving ugly shells behind. There is a better way.
When I hear folks complaining about Sam's moving, I can't help but wonder if they'd call for a march if, say, the McDades suddenly couldn't afford increased rent in Westland Plaza. This is a local couple who has methodically opened grocery stores in vacant spaces that big chains deserted. Yes, they are business people, and they believe in their ability to thrive in a variety of neighborhoods in the city. These are the sorts of businesses residents need to support because they've got our backs. And because they invest more of their own money locally. And because it's authentic small businesses that appeal to newcomers and good job creators.
Of course, Jackson has a bad habit of having eyes bigger than our stomachs, or wallets. We keep getting pulled into giant plans of people who are going to "save" the city with one or another huge taxpayer-funded project, whether Two Lakes, a new arena, Farish Street or even the convention center.
While some of these ideas are better than others and have less hanging in the balance while we wait for them--like, say, flood control--the worst part is that, as a community, we put way too much stock in them. And there's the "just wait until ..." syndrome that ends up hurting our city and making us think an elected official is going to suddenly transform the city by making it easy for one or another developer to fulfill their huge dream.
I'm fine with smart developers trying to make big stuff happen (as long as it's environmentally sound, doesn't cost taxpayers too much and doesn't do more harm than good), but we really need to get over the whole "next big thing" cycle where we wait around for a grant or a tax break or somebody to do something.
Each of us can do something right now. We can decide to push back on big-box outlets (not to mention corporate media; ahem) that send our dollars out of town. We can tell Sam's Club not to let the screen door hit its corporate butt on the way out as we double down on supporting those who actually help build our community. And we must get over the idea that it has to cost more to shop or eat at a local restaurant. I can have breakfast cheaper at Brent's Drugs than at many of the chain buffet breakfast joints. Don't believe the hype.
It is time to think small. We need just as much thought and public talk about supporting local non-chain businesses as we hear about the Jackson State stadium or the need to build an arena downtown. Sure, research those ideas and pursue the ones the public vets and, ultimately, approves. But right now, we can spend our money at soul-food restaurants around the city like Collins Dream Kitchen where they, yes, know our names.
And for the love of all things holy, let's get some creativity going in the empty storefronts downtown. I'm fully aware that the owners of empty downtown buildings hope that someday they'll reap the harvest of all the development down there. But in the meantime, let's not warehouse spaces. They need to rent them affordably to small businesses that can bring a creative spirit downtown--or make them available to artists to do creative storefronts and artisan stalls inside like we see in cool cities from Austin to Asheville. I've said this for years, and for years, I've been embarrassed that friends and colleagues that I proudly stash in the King Edward Hotel must look out their windows at our city's inability to understand the power of small.
If you haven't heard, small is the new big. Local is where it's at. Community isn't corporate. Authenticity isn't eating at the same bagel shop you can find in any major city in America.
Jackson's success lies in thinking local first. Each of us has a role to play. The key is to stop waiting for the next big thing.
It may never happen.